Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Two Meanings of the Good Life - Part I

Expressions change over time, but not always for the better. Since modern societies are sometimes seen as containing the “collected reason of the ages”, to use Burke's famous phrase,[1] one could be forgiven for thinking that linguistic expressions only gain in nuance by embedding new meaning, never discarding any substance over time. Yet, the “good life”[2] is an example of an expression that in modern times has lost a significant part of its original, classical meaning. A look at the differences between these two definitions leads to some important conclusions about modern society.

Today, the “good life” is generally considered to be a comfortable, pleasant, and carefree life based on a certain standard of living. This is the modern meaning of the “good life”, based on life's material conditions. Thus, Herbert Marcuse defined the “good life” negatively, as “a life which is as much as possible free from toil, dependence, and ugliness”.[3] In this sense, the “good life” may never be available to all people all the time, but in the West it can certainly be said to be available to most people most of the time.[4] 

The “good life” in this modern sense is implicitly considered to be the kind of life that is conducive to “happiness”. In fact, this is a foregone conclusion since the word “happiness” is itself defined today in such a way that it could not be otherwise. Just as the “good life” has a specifically modern meaning, so does “happiness”. The United Nation's definition of “happiness”, which arguably could be taken as a reference, makes a clear distinction between the emotional feeling of being “happy” (which is more related with personality), and “happiness” as a level of satisfaction with external conditions.[5] Not surprisingly, with this definition of “happiness”, the countries with the highest standards of living also have the highest levels of “happiness”.[6] The modern definition of “happiness” is conveniently aligned with the modern definition of the “good life”.

However, it seems difficult to rely exclusively on material conditions for reaching “happiness”. The modern capitalist system thrives on a certain popular dissatisfaction with the existing level of goods and services.[7] The expectations of modern man constantly increase as standards of living improve; he constantly demands better conditions, whether a safer car, a cleaner environment, or more generous social services.[8] As José Ortega y Gasset said, “that which previously would have been thought to be good luck, or would have inspired humble gratitude to fate, has been converted into a right that one is not thankful of, but that one demands”.[9] Security and material comfort, which before the advent of the modern world could be only obtained with wealth and power, is now not only a reality for almost everyone in the West, but also seen as a “right”.[10]

For these reasons, it is not surprising that modern man generally does not think he is living the “good life”. Can someone really be said to live the ”good life” if he is constantly dissatisfied, expecting something more, and if he takes the conditions of his life for granted and sees them as a “right”? It seems that the “good life” requires not only a certain standard of living but also an awareness of that standard. A corollary to the modern definition should then be that for someone to live the ”good life” he must also know he is living the “good life”. In other words, he must be able to put it in perspective. The “good life” thus implicitly requires a comparison with another kind of life which, evidently, is not so “good”.[11]

However, such a comparison is not easy to make in the wealthy welfare states of the Western world, where the level of equality is high and material conditions do not vary much among the general population (as Gini coefficients make clear).[12] It is often difficult for an individual to recognise and appreciate a comfortable standard of living, far above the realisation of his primary needs, if this standard is generally shared by others in his vicinity. This helps to explain why many people in the West are not aware they are living the “good life”. Thus, paradoxically, a society in which nearly everyone is living the ”good life”, in effect is a society where almost no one is.

Other comparisons can be made, however. It is also possible to become aware of the ”good life” by putting it in historical and social perspective. Unfortunately, such remote projections also do not seem to be man's forte. Man does not have the natural reflex to compare his material situation with the dire conditions of past generations, or with the often difficult conditions of people currently living in less developed societies. Most people living in the rich Western world seem to take their current conditions for granted also in this sense; they are unaware of their outstanding standard of living, forgetting the uniqueness of their societies both from a historical point of view, as well as in the world today.

Such comparisons obviously require some kind of sensitivity to the historical and social conditions of mankind. A particular kind of imaginative understanding seems to be needed. Such a sensitivity requires, in John Dewey’s words, “a field of perception, rich in hues and subtle in shades of meaning”.[13] It consists in having a certain intellectual awareness; that sort of intellectual intuition which Plato called noesis and which he considered essential in enabling the thinking activity.[14] But such a consciousness is rare; experience shows that not many people are naturally endowed with such intellectual sensitivity. However, there should be no a priori reason why it could not be developed early in some men and women, providing it is part of their education.

The “good life” in the modern sense is therefore not as prevalent as it might initially seem; indeed, for the majority in the rich and developed world the ”good life” is hardly possible at all. Man's nature is such that material conditions gain a significant part of their value only if they are considered relatively. In the modern world, most people are unable to fully appreciate their comfortable material conditions because they are unable to put them in perspective. They are generally not aware that they are living the ”good life
, because they can or will not make the relevant comparisons.  Therefore, though there is some truth to definition of the “good life” in the modern sense, something is evidently missing from this definition. To see what this is, it is necessary to look at the older definition of the ”good life, which will be the subject of the next post.


[1] From Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

[2] Equivalent expressions exist in some other languages, such as “la belle vie”, “la dolce vita”, “det goda livet”, etc.

[3] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, p135. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

[4] The United States may be somewhat an exception to this statement.

[5] As page 4 of the UN 2013 World Happiness Report states: “As we showed in last year’s World Happiness Report and again in this year’s report, respondents to surveys clearly recognize the difference between happiness as an emotion and happiness in the sense of life satisfaction”. Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[6] The UN World Happiness Index always shows the richest, cleanest and safest countries at the top of the list, year after year (i.e. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, etc.). Source: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf 

[7] It became necessary to “keep the customer dissatisfied", as Charles F. Kettering of General Motors famously wrote in 1929 (Kettering was General Director of Research Laboratories at General Motors from 1920 to 1947). See also, J. K. Galbraith's now classic, The Affluent Society (Penguin Books, 1999). He writes on p.128, for instance, that efforts were eventually made by business to “create the wants it seeks to satisfy”.

[8] See Professor B. Friedman, Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Chapter 1. Further, Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at University of Southern California, says that previous generations have proven that our desires adjust to our income. At all levels of income most people usually estimate that they need about 20 percent more than they have in order to be “perfectly happy”. (Professor R. Easterlin, The Economics of Happiness).

[9] J. Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p111. (Austral, Edición Conmemorativa, 2005.)

[10] As in the “right” to “decent” housing or the “right “to “worthy” employment, and many others such “rights”.

[11] The national Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality in a country, is now generally below 30 for the welfare states of Western Europe. See, for instance, Eurostat (www.eurofound.europa.eu/areas/qualityoflife/eurlife/) 

[12] L. Strauss, Liberal Education and Responsibility (essay). 

[13] J. Dewey, Experience and Nature, p315. Dover Publications, Inc., 1958. 

[14] Plato considered that such an intellectual intuition (noesis), together with discursive reasoning (dianoia), is what makes up the thinking activity (nous) of man.